Searching for extraterrestrial life is an important goal not only for NASA, but for many of us in the scientific community to address the ancient question of whether we are alone in the Universe. But what if we actually discover alien life? We can just as easily imagine a friendly encounter (E.T., The Day the Earth Stood Still) as a fight to the death (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Either way, we expect the extraterrestrials to be very different from us. It is implicit in the word we use to describe them: aliens.
Examining these conflicting views is one of the goals of a new initiative called Exploring Otherness on Earth and Beyond, funded by the Einstein Foundation in Germany, which held its first workshop earlier this month at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin. By including perspectives from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, the initiative hopes to build on ideas discussed during a symposium on Astrobiology and Society held in 2015 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The fact that this can even be a topic of serious discussion suggests that contact with extraterrestrials is no longer considered an unlikely pipe dream.
While most scientists would welcome the discovery of alien life and the chance to learn more about it, such a discovery is often perceived as strange or frightening by the public at large. Some would welcome aliens with open arms and expect them to solve our problems, from climate change to cancer. Some might even treat them as gods. Others would be afraid the aliens would take over Earth and have us at their mercy. Which attitude prevails likely will depend on what type of behavior we recognize in the extraterrestrials as being like our own.
Historians, philosophers, and social scientists have long grappled with the idea of “otherness.” Human history is a long parade of cultures colonizing and subjugating each other, and racial and tribal politics are still very much with us today. Although many in our society are becoming more tolerant of otherness in areas like sexuality and neurodiversity, the separation of “us” and “them” is alive and well.
And that’s just among humans. If we consider our fellow creatures on Earth, “otherness” is even more of a problem. Why do some animals repel us, while others we want to cuddle? A bear is far more dangerous to humans than a tarantula — a child’s teddy bear conveniently leaves out the teeth and claws — yet we feel more at ease around our fellow mammal. Since bears are more closely related to humans than tarantulas, it is easier for us to read a bear’s emotions. And most of us are creeped out by a tarantula’s otherworldly appearance and behavior — the multiple eyes and the scuttling movements. In fact, spiders in general tend to rank highly among the most feared/disgusting animals, with bunnies residing at the other end of the scale. This may explain the preponderance of movie aliens that resemble arthropods. (The movie District 9 — a powerful indictment of societal “otherness” — comes to mind.)
Science is only beginning to understand the staggering variety of “alien” behaviors on our own planet, from sea turtles that sense magnetic fields to plants that communicate with each other via airborne chemicals. If we venture into an inhabited universe, we are likely to run into beings that evolved under entirely different physical circumstances. Will we meet them as curious, friendly, fellow explorers? Predators and prey? Will we be delighted or disgusted by their strangeness?
This dynamic may depend on whether “they” are more technologically advanced than us. If they are, they are likely to call the shots, not us. But let’s assume for a moment that we are the more advanced species. Would we afford more protection to an extraterrestrial microbe than to our own microbes, which we kill by the billions in our lab experiments without giving it a second thought? What if the alien is a more complex life form — say, similar to one of our fellow terrestrial animals? Shouldn’t we treat it ethically? What would that even mean to a society like our own that still eats fellow animals, even those we are closely related to?
The psychology of alien contact
How we deal with alien life, if it should ever come to that, will be one of the major challenges for humanity. We certainly want to avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings that could have dire, and possibly fatal, consequences. And we need to consider the possibility of encountering intelligent life forms that we simply cannot understand, as in the Stanisław Lem novel Solaris. We might be so confused by their otherness that we don’t even recognize them as living beings.
There might be a way around this dilemma: Artificial robots may be more successful emissaries between interplanetary civilizations, since they could take on a more neutral form. Another solution would be mimicry. Many science fiction aliens, from The Man Who Fell to Earth to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, take human form when they come visiting.
Religious questions also come into play when discussing the otherness of aliens. How would the major religions on our planet deal with the discovery of intelligent aliens? At the 2015 Library of Congress meeting, Brother Guy Consolmagno from the Vatican Observatory said he was once asked whether he would baptize an alien. I thought his answer was very smart. He said yes, but only if the alien wants to.
Of course, some Eastern traditions like Buddhism would do away with notions of “self” and “other” altogether. Perhaps that is the key insight that will allow us, and perhaps other civilizations hoping to travel among the stars, to meet each other with open arms, rather than with weapons drawn — even if some of us (or them) might still have a deep nagging feeling inside of being repelled by alien otherness.
**By Dirk Schulze Makuch